Cleopatra: A Life
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Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order.
woman who had emerged from the traveler’s sack. in 69 BC, the second of three daughters. Two brothers followed, to each of which Cleopatra would, in succession, be briefly joined in marriage. While there was never a particularly safe time to be born a Ptolemy, the first century may have been among the worst. All five siblings met violent ends. Among them Cleopatra distinguishes herself for having alone dictated the circumstances of her demise, no small accomplishment and, in Roman terms, a
already have been strained, at least among the feuding siblings. Arsinoe too had a clever tutor. That eunuch now arranged her escape. His coup suggests either that Cleopatra was negligent (highly improbable under the circumstances), preoccupied with her brother and her own survival, or astutely double-crossed. It is unlikely that she underestimated her seventeen-year-old sister. Arsinoe burned with ambition; she was not the kind of girl who inspired complacency. She clearly had no great faith in
A century earlier Ptolemy VI had traveled there in tatters, to set up house in a garret. Shortly thereafter his younger brother, Cleopatra’s greatgrandfather, the dismemberer of his son, made the same trip. He displayed scars purportedly inflicted by Ptolemy VI and begged the Senate for mercy. The Romans looked wearily upon the endless procession of applicants, abused or not. They received their petitions and made few decisions. At one point the Senate went so far as to outlaw the hearing of
in opting for familiarity over consistency. Hence Berytus is here Beirut, while Pelusium—which no longer exists, but would today be just east of Port Said, at the entrance to the Suez Canal— remains Pelusium. Similarly I have opted for English spellings over transliterations. Caesar’s rival appears as Pompey rather than Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Caesar’s deputy as Mark Antony rather than Marcus Antonius. In many respects geography has changed, shorelines have sunk, marshes dried, hills crumbled.
season of celebrations. In its festivals too Cleopatra’s kingdom inverted the Roman order. With the fields under water, Egypt devoted itself to song, dance, and feasting. “Home is best,” went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra, returning from a land that defined the word differently. “Alexandria,” Cicero had railed years earlier, “is home of all deceit and falsehood.” It is unclear who managed Egyptian affairs while Cleopatra was abroad—normally she would have entrusted